Pressure continues to mount on Conservative Government not to introduce extreme abortion regime

Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, pressure continues to mount on the UK Government not to go further than legally required in its legal framework for abortion in Northern Ireland which is due to come into force before the 31 March deadline.

Sir John Hayes, a Conservative MP who has held six ministerial positions, has said the Government’s plan to impose abortion on demand on Northern Ireland should be stopped.

In a comment piece for influential political blog ConservativeHome, Sir John Hayes suggests “the Government might be using Northern Ireland as a ‘guinea pig’ to test policies before implementing them in England, rather as the poll tax was ‘tested’ in Scotland.”

Yet, no such public appetite exists,” he adds. “In fact, recent research conducted by the University of Liverpool shows that only 5% of people in Northern Ireland support introducing abortion through to 24-weeks, as the Government’s proposed framework aims to do.”

“The same research shows that 58 percent of Sinn Fein voters and 54 percent of DUP only want abortions to be allowed when there is a threat to the mother’s health.

“Just weeks ago we were celebrating the DUP and Sinn Fein putting aside differences to restore the assembly. Wouldn’t it be sadly ironic then if the UK Government imposed a policy on Northern Ireland, overriding devolution in the process, that unites the majority of voters from both parties in their hostility to Westminster.”

Baroness Nuala O’Loan, the former police ombudsman, has today echoed Sir John Hayes’ sentiments on respecting devolution and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

She told the Irish Catholic: “It is as if the newly-returned NI Assembly did not exist. Yet the NI Assembly and especially Minister Robin Swann will have to provide the whole abortion service.

There has been no impact assessment, no preparation (because nobody knows what is coming), no training of staff, no allocation of ringfenced budget to pay for the anticipated 1,000 new procedures a year: procedures for which the NHS in England and Wales pays private providers between £400 and £600 a time. So, a budget of some £500,000 should be allocated. I have not seen any sign of any budget allocation.”

US Congressman Chris Smith has written to the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, calling on him to refer Northern Ireland’s abortion laws back to the Assembly.

After meeting senior DUP figures, including Ian Paisley MP and Paul Givan MLA, last week the Congressman asked the Secretary of State to re-examine his course of action and defer to the Northern Ireland Assembly, adding that “abortion on demand is not the will of the people in Northern Ireland.”

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson revealed this week that his party’s “priority in the current circumstances was to protect life including that of the unborn child”.

Addressing the Minister for State Robin Walker, he added: “The minister will be aware of concern my party has expressed including the first minister about the decision to press on with regulation on abortion in Northern Ireland despite the Assembly being restored and this being a clear breach of the devolution settlement.

“Will the minister heed calls from Northern Ireland politicians for this matter to be dealt with by the Assembly and not this parliament.”

Walker acknowledged the concerns of the DUP but gave no further clarity on the impending regulations, only stating that the Government was legally obligated to act.

Diana Johnson MP who was a key architect and supporter of imposing abortion on Northern Ireland described the past six months of abortion being unavailable in Northern Ireland as a “lost opportunity”.

Earlier this month, it was announced that the Northern Ireland Secretary faces being dragged through the courts over the controversial abortion framework.

The threat of a legal challenge is outlined in a pre-action notice sent last month by lawyers acting on behalf of Right To Life UK to NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. The pre-action notice warns that the organisation will be taking legal action against the Government if the final abortion framework introduced to Northern Ireland goes further than the Government is legally required to introduce.

The Government are legally required, by the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, to introduce a limited abortion framework in the province ahead of 31 March 2020. The Government has launched a consultation on a proposed abortion framework for Northern Ireland which goes far beyond the limited changes strictly necessary for the Government to comply with the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.

The pre-action notice outlines that should the Government proceed to implement the proposals as outlined in the consultation document into the final framework for the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland, the Government would be acting unlawfully.

The notice outlines that any regulations created to give effect to the Government’s duty under section 9(1) of the Northern Ireland Act would be susceptible to judicial review. The solicitors have outlined that the organisation would have standing to bring forward such proceedings. Right To Life UK has therefore put the Government on notice that they will seek to challenge, by way of judicial review, any provision which unlawfully seeks to impose abortion on Northern Ireland beyond the legal obligation dictated by the Northern Ireland Act. 

The Government has consistently and repeatedly underlined its commitment to devolution in Northern Ireland, particularly as it relates to the issue of abortion, emphasising that the best place for decisions on abortion to be made is at the Northern Ireland Assembly, by the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.

Background on the changes

The proposed framework drops many of the current legal safeguards provided by the Abortion Act in England and Wales. The proposals open up abortion provision to any healthcare professional, which could include pharmacists, nurses, midwives, healthcare assistants, art therapists and dieticians. It also drops the requirement that two doctors sign off on an abortion.

The proposal includes virtually no legal limit on the locations where abortions can take place, potentially allowing for the home use of both abortion pills, along with abortion provision in pharmacies, GP surgeries, school nurse clinics, mobile abortion clinics and ‘telemed’ abortions.

In practice, abortion on demand would be available up to either 22 or 24 weeks under mental health grounds. Abortion without certification would be available up to either 12 or 14 weeks. This would allow sex-selective abortions to be available on-demand through this period with no specific provision banning sex-selective abortion through to 22/24 weeks. 

The proposal would also see abortion for disabilities, including cleft lip, club foot and Down’s syndrome introduced to Northern Ireland, available right through to birth. A poll organised by the University of Liverpool and Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council showed that 58% of Sinn Féin voters and 54% of DUP voters want their country’s new abortion framework to only allow abortions when the mother’s life is at risk. Only 5% of all voters support introducing abortion through to 24 weeks, which is in line with what the Government has proposed introducing to Northern Ireland. This is a clear rejection of the extreme proposed abortion framework that the UK Government wants to impose on the people of Northern Ireland.